Margaret Walker Alexander, opening the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, ;WorldwideRevival Inc., 130 N. College Ave., Eatonville, January 29, 1998
On July 7, 1915, Margaret Walker Alexander was born in Birmingham, Ala. -- the latitude of entrenched segregation -- to a father who was a minister and an academician. Her mother was a music teacher whose organ playing sounded straight from heaven.
Five years later in Meridian, Miss., Walker gave her first speech -- an Easter recitation that drew raves from the congregation at her family's church. "I've been talking ever since," says Alexander. The notable African-American writer, historian and lecturer will be the opening speaker at Eatonville's Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities (Jan. 29-Feb 1).
The Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center at Jackson State University in Mississippi is named for this octogenarian daughter of Dixie who has spent a lifetime illuminating the dark corners of her region. She has examined her race's history with a literary talent first nurtured by her mother's music and her father's books and sermons.
When she was 10, the family moved to New Orleans, where her creativity was further stimulated. "It was a beautiful place, much more liberal than Birmingham or Meridian. It was there, on our steps, I'd sit filling composition books with my poetry," she says, in a phone interview from her home in Mississippi.
The budding poet entered Northwestern University when she was just 17 years old. "I remember the snow fell in early November -- my first. I was used to flowers. It was bitter cold. I didn't think it was beautiful."
Her writing, though, was beautiful. "My creative writing teacher took an interest in my work from the time I walked into his class until he died," she recalls. "He became my friend. He taught me prosody and how to write and got me into the Poetry Society of America."
Her poem "For My People," published two years after her graduation, became the title poem of an anthology that won the 1942 Yale Competition for Younger Poets. It was at Northwestern, however, that Alexander began her book, "Jubilee," now considered a classic.
Its completion was a long time coming. After college, she attended the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop, earned her graduate degree, married and raised three children while working as a professor at Jackson State, where she is now a professor emerita of English.
"Thirty years after I started the book, it was published," says Alexander. "Jubilee," a tale of endurance and triumph, is based on the diary of the author's great-grandmother (a slave in Georgia) and traces her life before, during and after the Civil War.
Notwithstanding the recent feature film "Amistad," Alexander says, "Anybody who claims their records go back to Africa tells a lie. There is no record of transference from Africa. They came in chains, without names, without records, without history, without art."
Alexander grew up with no non-black friends. There were a few Caucasian acquaintances in college; a smattering of white students through the years. White friends, though?
"I haven't sought them out. Oh, the day that segregation was announced unlawful, there was a difference in treatment on trains and street cars, but frankly, that is not the kind of change people expected.
"While now middle-class African-Americans do well, little has changed for the poor black person -- a problem of education."
It was a 12-year-old Margaret who saw Zora Neale Hurston for the first time in 1927, when Hurston visited the child's mother. "She'd been told of my mama's interest in folk cultures."
Later, she read all of the novelist's work, feeling a strong connection with the protagonist in "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Alexander says Hurston was one of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance: "No one was more productive or talented."
Alexander's lecture at the festival will examine the "cosmology (mythology) and cosmonogy (earth's genesis)" of the Nile area from the African point of view. "It shows (that) African people are spiritual people.
"Today's problems -- crime, teen-age pregnancy, lack of interest in education, no value of life -- have grown out of a society that no longer considers religion as basic, but considers money as most important," says Alexander. "I grew up in a religious home where my father preached, my mother played the organ and my grandmother prayed morning and night. Because children don't have that, they are literally drowning."
She says spirituality is the reason "Eyes" is a such great book. "While the characters were looking at a storm, they realized that God was in the storm." According to Alexander, African-Americans should look for God in the current societal storm: "That's the only way to salvage the young people of today."
Thursday, Jan. 29
"In Conversation": Opening talk by Margaret Walker Alexander and Jerry W. Ward Jr. centers on the festival's theme: "Religion, Myth and Cosmology in an African Worldview." 7:30 p.m.-9 p.m.; Worldwide Revival Inc., 130 N. College Ave., Eatonville; free.
Friday, Jan. 30
Public Forums: Scholarly lectures presented in two sessions include the topics "The Spirituality of Relationships in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God'" by Tracy M. Ryan (1 p.m.-2:30 p.m.) and "Of Religion, Root Workers and Two-headed Doctors: The Role of Hoodoo in Hurston's ‘Moses, Man of the Mountain' and ‘Mules and Men'" by Elvin Holt (3 p.m.-5 p.m.). All day; Worldwide Revival Inc., Eatonville; $35-$85.
Street Festival of the Arts: Lively celebration of culture, with community music and dance groups, food and craft vendors. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., downtown Eatonville; $2, $1 ages 6-11.
Concert: "God's Trombones" performed by Bethune-Cookman College Concert Choir and the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra. 7:30 p.m.; Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, Eatonville; $10.
Saturday, Jan 31
Street Festival: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. with Ramsey Lewis concert at 3 p.m. on the center stage.
Art talk: Curator Jeff Donaldson discusses "First TransAfrican Art Invitational Exhibit," currently on display at the Orlando Museum of Art. 10 am-noon, Orlando Museum of Art, 416 N. Mills Ave., Orlando; $39.
Concert: "God's Trombones." 2 p.m., Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, Eatonville; $7.50.
Festival Gala: Dinner and show themed "An Ancestral Gift: Passage of Spirit." Clarion Plaza Hotel, Orlando; $65, reservations required.
Sunday, Feb. 1
Street Festival: noon-5 p.m.
For registration or information, call the Zora Neale Hurston festival office at 647-3307.